Issue #77

Winter 2021

Passenger Rail Service Has Come to Georgia!

by James Gallant

The locomotive stationary by the split-rail barnyard fence grumbles, snorts anemic steam puffs.

"We stopped again."

"That's Progress for you."

"I can't be late for my appointment in Macon!"

The cross-eyed fireman, idle on his stool by the boiler, strums a banjo.

"I'll take the stagecoach next time."

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps, the Pastor reflects. A woman turns to him. "I enjoyed so conversing with other passengers in the coaches. How can I do that with train seats arranged in rows like this?"

The Pastor smiles.

A portly conductor materializes. He wears a silk stovepipe hat, an elegant handlebar moustache.

"Hey, Fancy Dan, why the hold-up?"

"We ask that you refrain from use of that term aboard the Macon and Brunswick."

"Then take off that silly hat."

"I refer to the term ‘hold-up.'"

"We've been holed-up here long enough, if you ask me," says the elderly matron in the wide-brimmed black sunhat. "My urge to pee-pee is becoming very powerful."

No man putteth new wine into old wineskins, for the new wine will burst the skins, and be spilled, the Pastor reflects.

"Why has the train stopped this time?"

"There's a herd of cows on the tracks," the Conductor explains.

"We got a cow-catcher, ain't we?" [1]

"Yes, but it has been removed from the front of the train and is being installed on the rear."

"Ohmygod, are we going to back up?"

The Conductor smiles indulgently. "We're merely trying to prevent the cows from entering the sleeping car, as the alligator did last week."

"Surely that's a tall tale?"

"Not so tall—very long."

A fellow wearing a brown derby rises from his bench, opens the side door in the car, and leaps. He rises from the rail bed gravel, dusts himself off, adjusts his derby, and walks along the road paralleling the tracks.

A second man, a red-haired Dutchman, follows suit.

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly (Proverbs 14:29).

The cows regard the Dutchman levelly.

"Moo," says the Dutchman.

"These benches remind me of church pews without the cushions."

"We're all riding in the same cars, and sitting on the same hard benches, so why do first- and second-class fares differ?"

"You will find it stated on the back of your ticket," the Conductor explains, "that in the event of breakdown, second-class ticket-holders must get out and push."

"The print is very small."

"Persons dissatisfied with our service may, of course, leave as those two gentlemen have," the Conductor says. "However, I don't recommend it on a hot day like this. A person could have a stroke."

"I'd walk," a woman says, "but I'm not expected at Between until the train arrives."

"You live in Between?"

"Yes."

"That must be Hell."

"It's more like Purgatory."

The Conductor, punch in hand, starts down the aisle. "Tickets please."

A woman seated by a young man with a beard holds out a ticket and a half.

"For whom is the half-ticket, m'am?"

"My son here."

"Half-tickets are for children under twelve."

"He was just ten when we left Savannah"

The train lurches forward abruptly. The fireman leaps to his feet and begins feeding wood into the boiler frenetically. He accidentally includes his banjo.

The train demonstrates new vigor: chuffchuffchuffchuff I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. As it passes the two walkers, the engineer sounds the banshee-wail whistle.

The Dutchman waves a fist in the air. "Vissel all you vant, I von't come back."

The fireman sobs.

The train vents great white billows of steam—huffpuffhuffpuffhuffpuff—crossing a wooden trestle over a deep ravine, and it is back on solid ground when a male passenger, head craned out a window, shouts, "My god! The trestle's on fire!"

Passengers rushing to his side of the car see the trestle collapse into the ravine.

"Thank God we were going fast enough to get across!"

"We had no choice," the Conductor says. "Thieves on horseback were trying to board us."

"Why are we slowing down again?"

"We've gone fifteen miles and must stop."

"Why?"

"We find that people with nothing to eat or drink grow fidgety after fifteen miles." The conductor points across a meadow. "There's a tavern yonder. When we're set to go again, you'll hear the ding-a-ling."

________________________________________

[1] Shields on the fronts of trains for deflecting objects on the tracks were sometimes called "cowcatchers."

Author Bio

fallen leaf


James Gallant is the winner of 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature for his story collection, La Leona, and Other Guitar stories, just published. His e-novel, Whatever Happened to Ohio? from Vagabondage Press, and a collection of essays and short fiction, Verisimilitude: essays and approximations, published by Fortnightly Review press (UK), appeared in 2018. His story, "The Crotchety Old Oak in the Park," appeared in Issue #69 of The Cafe Irreal.